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What are the Bulls doing if not playing drop coverage?

Will Gottlieb Avatar
March 29, 2022

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During his pre-game press conference last night, Billy Donovan spent some time diving into the discourse about the Bulls defense, what they’re trying to do and what causes it to get beat.

When he said the Bulls do not play drop coverage, it was a departure from the general consensus and certainly my understanding of what the Bulls are trying to do in their pick-and-roll coverage.

Here’s what Donovan said and my attempt to make sense of it.

What is drop coverage?

“Everybody says we’re playing, we’re not playing a drop. We haven’t played a drop the entire year. Vooch should be up there at the level of the screen,” Donovan said.

Before digging into it, I’m pulling the definition of drop coverage from former GLeague assistant coach Dylan Murphy’s blog.

Drop coverage: A pick-and-roll defense in which the defender guarding the screener greets the ball-handler at or below the level of the screen until the ball-handler’s defender gets back in front of his original man.

This is what Donovan wants the Bulls to be doing. Showing much higher to the point of the screen. This helps prevent the handler from getting downhill.

Realistically, that is not always the case. Considering the speed at which these things happen, it’s not always reasonable to expect the big to get to the level of the screen. Even if that’s his job. So a lot of times, it ends up looking more like this:

According to Murphy’s definition, this would still qualify as drop coverage. It seems Donovan considers drop coverage to be when the big drops all the way back to the free throw line, whereas this is more of a shallow drop where Vucevic is playing centerfield.

A few things to consider on this play: the level of the screen is much lower than the high pick-and-rolls the Cavs were running. Additionally, the Knicks had just run this play on back-to-back possessions. Evan Fournier got two open threes on this action, forcing Vucevic to clog up that space.

“We certainly want him up there presenting, and then he’s got to read his man. Is his man rolling hard, popping, what’s he doing?” Donovan said.

I think this is what we’re seeing on this play — other circumstances dictate where Vucevic needs to position himself. This makes it appear as if he’s dropping, even if that’s not the Bulls “base” or default defense.

Communication and the role of the guard

Donovan acknowledged Vucevic has done a better job of late, but it’s on the guards to help him out. Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso are great at getting over screens, but the rest of the group has struggled. This contributes to the Bulls allowing the highest frequency of shots at the rim of any defense in the NBA.

“We don’t want [Vucevic] to stay up there, he’s got to go back down. But it’s also on the guard too. It’s a 50-50 partnership. It can’t just be on Vooch to stay up there and the guard keeps getting hung up on screens.”

“There’s been times we need to communicate better. When we can get the ball directed at the point of the screen, that’s generally been much, much better for us,” Donovan continued.

These kinds of coverages can be blown up in two ways: the coverage isn’t called out quickly enough by the big man, or the guard doesn’t direct the ball where the big man wants it to go.

Here, LaVine does a great job of getting over the screen. We don’t know how the next phase of the defense plays out. It’s dependent on whether the Bulls want to ice the pick-and-roll or send the ball middle.

“Vooch is calling [the coverage] and the guard’s gotta respond to the call,” Donovan said. “He can’t, as the screen gets there, make the coverage call. And all of a sudden, the guard doesn’t have time to get into coverage. So we gotta call a little bit earlier.”

Defense is very much a full team effort, even when it doesn’t look like it. If we can take anything away from Donovan’s comments, it’s that appearances can be deceiving.

If not drop, what are the Bulls doing?

Contrary to popular opinion, the Bulls don’t stick to any one defensive principle throughout the course of a game.

“We have to have different things where we’re back a little bit, we’re up at the level of the screen and we’re trapping,” Donovan explained. “We have three or four things we’re doing in pick-and-roll coverages. But this idea that we’re back at the free throw line at the drop, that’s not what we should be doing.”

Maybe this is an issue of semantics. It could be an issue of adjusting to what the offense dictates.

The Bulls clearly do resort to drop coverage at times, but it’s not the only thing they do. The goal seems to be getting Vucevic to the level of the screen and while that doesn’t always happen, it doesn’t mean he is in drop coverage.

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